CAMBRIDGE, MA—In a letter of January 2, 2003, to Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, the co-directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Dean Kim B. Clark of Harvard Business School (HBS) expressed his regret over the recent intimidation of a student editor by top HBS administrators. He vowed a recommitment to open debate and criticism as essential qualities of education, and he explained the measures that he had undertaken to create a climate of free expression on his campus. Kors and Silverglate welcomed the dean’s words, noting, “This is the best way for abuses to end. We reasoned morally with the dean. The dean admitted error and committed himself to making HBS an appropriate haven for freedom of expression.”
On October 28, 2002, the Harbus, a student newspaper at HBS, ran an editorial cartoon that criticized the school’s Career Services for severe and chronic technical problems during a crucial week for student job searches. The cartoon showed a computer screen with pop-up announcements about the incompetence and inefficiency of the program. One announcement had two words expressing the exasperation of HBS students: “incompetent morons.”
On November 4, several high HBS administrators met with Nick Will, editor-in-chief of the Harbus, to express their displeasure with the cartoon. Will received a “verbal warning,” which he understood to be the first step of a disciplinary procedure for violation of HBS’s “community standards” code. On November 6, Will resigned as editor-in-chief.
In his resignation letter, Will noted administrative efforts to dictate the content of the Harbus . Citing a “personal threat,” Will wrote, “I cannot perform the duties of Editor-In-Chief with the integrity I had promised, nor is [the office] a personal risk I will assume.” On November 8, Dean Clark himself issued a HBS-wide statement that “Each of us first and foremost is a member of the Harvard Business School community, and as such, we are expected to treat each other respectfully. Referring to members of our community as ‘incompetent morons’ does not fall within the realm of respectful discourse.”
On November 19, FIRE’s Kors and Silverglate wrote to Dean Clark, protesting his administration’s intimidation of a student publication: “You have turned Harvard’s ‘community standards’ into the Harvard Sedition Act.” They noted, “A rule that outlaws speech that offends administrative power is not compatible with—and teaches contempt for—the most basic components of freedom.” Kors and Silverglate continued: “It is generally taken for granted by deans of major universities that they, their staff, and their programs will be criticized, lampooned, and satirized. Deans usually handle this natural part of their job with grace and understanding. Threatening a student for publishing an editorial cartoon unbecomes a great liberal arts institution. Is the administration of HBS too weak to live with freedom? Are HBS students unworthy of the protections that any community college would have to offer under the Bill of Rights?” FIRE drew national attention to these events.
In his response, Dean Clark wrote, “Since mid-November, I have sought a wide range of opportunities—including lunches and an open forum with students, meetings with faculty and staff, and discussions with alumni—to publicly reaffirm my commitment to free speech and the independence of the Harbus. Moreover, I have expressed my own regret that recent events may have caused anyone to doubt the depth of our commitment. I will continue to affirm this message at every appropriate moment…. I am confident we have learned from our recent experience, strengthened our commitment to free discourse, and underscored its importance in preserving the vitality of our community.” Kors and Silverglate praised the dean’s words and actions: “It is no small thing to admit error, to learn from experience, and to commit one’s administration to free exchange and criticism. We are confident that Harvard Business School will be a better place for these lessons and this recommitment, and we hope that the example set here will affect higher education in general.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, due process, legal equality, the rights of conscience, and religious liberty on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts on behalf of liberty at Harvard and elsewhere can be seen by visiting FIRE’s website, www.thefire.org.
Alan Charles Kors, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim B. Clark, Dean, Harvard Business School: 617-495-6550; email@example.com